Book Review: A Revolution in Color


W. W. Norton, 2017.

I tend to look at American history through the lens of my own life; that is, I unconsciously transfer 2018 onto an imaginary earlier-American self—my education, social status, faith, my American patriotism. For example, if I were to think of myself as a nineteenth-century American female, I would assume the viewpoint of an educated, middle class, Protestant housewife for no other reason than that that is what I am now. Never mind how likely or unlikely that would actually be. And If I moved that imaginary time-dial back even further to the 1770s, I would presume again that I would be some kind of a bourgeois-class female Patriot.

Yet how dangerous it is to read history backwards. By reading history backwards, we assume we know how people made decisions. We read their lives through a lens of inevitability. We think of the 1770s and see people divided into neat groups of Patriots and Loyalists, the Patriots obviously inspired by lofty ideals of liberty and equality and the Loyalists either cowards or suck-ups. We take for granted that of course we would have been Patriots in those days, too.

But the reality of the 1770s was far messier, far less idealistic than we imagine it to be, the line between Loyalist and Patriot razor-thin and ofttimes movable. The messy reality of that world comes to life in A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Harvard historian Jane Kamensky. In Kamensky’s capable hands, A Revolution is not so much a biography of one of America’s first great artists as it is a view on the Atlantic world through the eyes of one of its observers and participants.

copley revere

Paul Revere, by J. S. Copley

John Singleton Copley is one of those names that pops up in textbooks alongside Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Charles Willson Peale under stiff portraits of those American gods, the Founding Fathers. Oddly enough, however—and this is why it is so intriguing to look at individuals of the period—Copley did not fall into the American Patriot type that we might think he did, given his famous Patriot portraits. He lived in a strange no-man’s land of loyalty, personality, and circumstance—more British than American, and at the same time more American than British. He was a man of the British Atlantic world, having what Kamensky calls a “bivious gaze, forever alternating between glancing over his shoulder and peering at what was ahead of him.”

The strength of Kamensky’s book lies in her narrative style, which is as vibrant and colorful as her subject’s paintings, and the rapidity with which she creates sympathy for the Loyalists in a patriotic American like myself. Copley’s youth is rendered in such a way that we can see young Boston around him, strive with him to improve as he paints and paints and paints some more, and feel his yearning for the centers of culture and better instruction in Europe. Copley, the son of a poor, widowed tobacco merchant, is ever ambitious to be the best American painter, to be better than the European masters. His portrait subjects become increasingly more elite and connected, giving him an entry into wealthy and cultured society. His fellow American in London, Benjamin West, constantly urges him to jump the pond and truly fulfill his British potential.

But Copley’s life is characterized by a fatal indecision, and he puts off any move until it is nearly too late. He marries the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, Richard Clarke, and essentially seals his fate forever. For shortly after his marriage, Boston rages against Parliament and throws the tea—Richard Clarke’s tea—into the harbor. Clarke, justifiably outraged, is forced to flee to safety, and any sympathy that Copley once had for the American cause rapidly evaporates. Copley, caught now between his American roots and his antipathy for the rebellion, chooses to finally make his European tour, to protect his reputation, to play for time. As simple as that—a marriage, an unlucky connection—Copley loses his footing in the British and American contest. He didn’t really choose a side; he wavered. He never returned to America.

Copley’s European tour revolutionized his painting and catapulted him to greater fame in Britain than he ever attained in America. Yet Copley never fully planted his feet in Britain, either. He spent the last years of his life embittered over American matters and still straining for the British applause. He let his circumstances master him, rather than mastering them himself.

In his indecisiveness, Copley was a visible example among hundreds of invisible Americans who, caught up in the events between the radicals and the governing British, bided their time, rode the fence, or chose the side that was most convenient at the time. Who am I to say that I would have done any differently, had I been in his shoes?

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars